Do you long to be off the beaten track for a while? Out of the rat race? To relax among people who call a spade a spade and will treat you on face value? A place of (almost) guaranteed sunshine and warmth, where nothing is done today if it can wait until next month? Add to that beaches, tropical mangrove swamps, the Great Barrier Reef and unique wildlife and you're describing Cooktown, Far North Queensland.
Cooktown is 230km - as the daily 16-seater aeroplane flies, or 350km by road - north of Cairns, at the start of the Cape York Peninsula. This is the pointed bit in the top right-hand corner on the map of Australia. This small town of around 1300 people stands at the mouth of the Endeavour River on the Coral Sea.
Generally speaking, although each year varies slightly, temperatures in the dry months of April to October seldom reach higher than 28oC and the days tend to enjoy endless sunshine. In the wet months from November to March it is hotter, reaching around 33oC. The humidity during these months can make it uncomfortable for anybody used to a drier, cooler climate. There is a lot of heavy rain in a typical year and between the monsoon rains, the humidity remains high. Most accommodation has air-conditioning, as do all the other buildings catering for visitors, which is essential at this time of year.
The Origin of Cooktown
Cooktown's first European residents were the company and crew of His Majesty's Bark Endeavour in 1770, led by Captain James Cook. It was during their voyage of discovery of what they hoped would be the Great Southern Continent, that they came to grief amongst the lethal outcrops of coral just off the Australian coast. The ship almost sank when it hit what is now called Endeavour Reef, off Cape Tribulation - so-named to reflect their circumstances. Cook's crew managed to patch up the ship at sea, which gave them time to find a suitable beaching area to undertake more permanent repairs. The mouth of what is now the Endeavour River proved perfect; providing a beaching area, wood for repairs, a flat area of land upon which to camp and sources of abundant food. The company and crew stayed there for 48 days while repairs were completed on the ship.
Cook was less than complimentary about the area, which, given his straitened circumstances, is understandable. He left descriptions in his diary from which the area is still recognisable today:
18 June, 1770. I climbed one of the highest hills among those that overlooked the harbour, which afforded by no means a comfortable prospect; the lowland near the river is wholly overrun with mangroves1, among which the saltwater flows every tide; and the high land appeared everywhere to be stony and barren. In the meantime, Mr Banks had also taken a walk up the country and met with the frames of several old Indian houses, and places where they had dressed shellfish.
Mr Joseph Banks - the expedition's botanist - made the most of the enforced time ashore and collected 186 hitherto unknown plant species, which are still held at Kew Gardens in London, and wrote the first European description of a kangaroo. The company included an Aboriginal who had joined them earlier in the journey, as a translator, but who was not native to this area. Legend has it that when asked What is that bouncing beast?, the translator - not wanting to look stupid - replied in his native tongue Kangaroo, translation: I don't know .
'There's Gold in Them There Hills!'
Nothing much happened after Cook's brief sojourn, until gold was discovered in the Palmer River 1873 by Chinese and British prospectors, 140km to the south-west. Within months the mouth of the Endeavour River was surveyed and a tented camp called Cook's Town was established as the key access port for the burgeoning goldfields.
By the end of 1873 there were over 500 tents and by 1875 there was a school, a fire brigade, two churches, a population of 30,000 people, 94 licensed premises and 163 brothels2. In 1886, the imposing brick-built St Mary's Convent was constructed and several other permanent buildings followed within the next few years, including two banks. All were a sign of the prosperity of the town and the optimism of its populace.
After the Goldrush
This was rather misplaced. The reserves of gold ran out in the 1890s, and although the discovery of tin in the area helped the town maintain its status for a while longer, a cyclone almost destroyed the town in 1907. Cooktown slipped into decline for most of the 20th century, until tourists found it in the late 1970s, when the town was reintroduced into the public's consciousness during the Australian Bicentenary celebrations. The current tourism boom has brought more wealth and more people to Cooktown than at any time since the 1890s.
Cooktown is still remote, even by Australian standards. Until 2003, the road between Cairns and Cooktown was packed dirt along much of its distance, which washed away regularly during the summer monsoon season and was only suitable for four-wheel drive vehicles at any time of year. It has always been the more persistent tourists that have made their way this far north. It remains to be seen how much this will change now that the entire 350km road is sealed.
What greets visitors is a town still girt by mangrove swamp in the river delta and dry bush on the higher land. It is a small town, making little visual impact on the enormous landscape of the Cape York Peninsula. Flying in by plane from Cairns provides the most interesting views of the town, nestling beneath Grassy Hill and Mount Cook, lying between Finch Bay and the mouth of the Endeavour River. The plane flies more or less directly up the coast from Cairns, where there are views of mile upon mile of bushland, Coral Sea and the Great Barrier Reef. It's a spectacular trip.
What is There to Do?
Arrive in Cooktown and kick back, chill out and let life happen. Hang out at the Wharf, watching the fishermen. Sit with a beer in one of the town's pubs and chat to the locals. If it's activity you're after, check out the James Cook Museum, formerly St Mary's Convent, which contains information about and artefacts from the history of exploration and settlement of the town and its area. The Marine Museum details the 1899 cyclones, Mahina and Nachon, which collided north of Cooktown, sinking 76 vessels and killing 350 people.
The Botanic Gardens
The Botanic Gardens, on the road to Finch Bay, are 154 acres of native planting, such as runner bean trees3, strawberry trees4 and custard apples5, first planted in 1886 on a site used by Chinese charcoal-burners. It was restored in 1984, when stone-pitched waterways and paths were rediscovered. Nature's Powerhouse in the Botanic Gardens, houses a priceless collection of botanical illustrations of local flowering plants, by the late artist Vera Scarth-Johnson. There is also an exhibition of the wildlife of Cape York to be found there.
It's hard to get away from history in Cooktown. The tourist highlight of the year, to celebrate the Queen's official birthday, is the Discovery Festival over the first weekend in June, and re-enactment of James Cook's arrival at the river-mouth. The parade of floats by local clubs and societies, draws the crowds, as do the numerous parties and hoolies that go on into the night.
Enough of history (perhaps). The top of Grassy Hill, an area inexplicably covered with trees, is where Cook saw the surrounding mangroves and high land in 1770. It's a steep climb, but it is possible to drive right to the top. Upon it stands the old Cooktown lighthouse and a useful viewfinder map. It has expansive views of the town, to the river delta and across the bush of inland Cape York. In the east lies the Coral Sea and the Great Barrier Reef, clearly visible just 10km offshore. Northwards is the long beach of North Shore and Cape Bedford in the distance.
There are three beaches in Cooktown. Finch Bay is at the end of the road that passes the Botanic Gardens. Locals swim on the northern end only. At the southern end, a creek runs into the sea and crocodiles are not uncommon. Cherry Tree Bay is accessible only on foot, on a walking trail from Finch Bay or from Grassy Hill. It is much less used than Finch Bay and a good place to find tranquillity. The North Shore beach on the other side of the town and the river is over a kilometre long and good for beachcombing. It faces into the prevailing south-easterlies and so receives an interesting clutter of sea-borne flotsam. Access is only possible by boat. Enquiries can be made at Cook's Landing Kiosk by the wharf about getting there, but don't forget to organise a lift back!
The Great Barrier Reef
The Great Barrier Reef is closer to Cooktown than to any other town in Australia. There are fishing boats and sailing boats that can be hired for a trip to fish, dive or snorkel on the Inner and the Ribbon Reefs. The Inner Reef here has some of the least-damaged corals and is the least visited. It is not uncommon to be the only people on an entire Reef: indeed it is unusual to see another boat. To appreciate the beauty and bounty of the Reef, snorkelling or diving is a must. The Coral Sea is very buoyant compared to most oceans, so the least confident swimmer can float quite comfortably on the surface and gaze at the wildlife beneath. It is probably the highlight for visitors to Cooktown, although most of the locals have never actually seen it.
After All That - Food and Sleep
There are numerous eateries in Cooktown and there's enough variety to suit any budget, from takeaways and kiosks to restaurants. The local fish is excellent, and many of the eateries have local specialities, such as black-lipped oysters, barramundi, coral trout, Spanish mackerel, painted crayfish and mudcrabs. Tropical fruit are also in abundance and difficult to miss, including pawpaws, passion fruit, custard apples, mangos and pineapples.
There are just three pubs left from the golden days of the 1880s. All lie along the main street, Charlotte Street, and are locally known as the Top Pub (the Cooktown Hotel), the Middle Pub (the Westcoast Hotel) and the Bottom Pub (the Sovereign Hotel), reflecting their proximity to the bottom of the hill and the wharf. There are other licensed premises in Cooktown and most of them also serve food.
For such a small place, there are a lot of places that provide accommodation (17 in all, when this article was written in 2003) of different types to suit every budget, ranging from caravan parks and Backpackers to self-catering and resort hotels. It's worth booking ahead, because it's a long drive to the next town if everything is full, but it's usually only the June weekend when the town is booked out.
There is no way to describe the atmosphere of Cooktown, created by the climate, the friendly locals, the sound of waves lapping on the wharf, the laughter in the pubs and the relaxed approach to life. You'll have to go there to find out.